LEICESTER: England returned from Russia filled with hope after a World Cup that promised a brighter future with a run to the semi-finals for the first time in 28 years.
However, that feel-good factor has given way to a reality check in the first two matches since the World Cup fever died down.
Defeat to Spain in their Nations League opener on Saturday — following losses to Croatia in Russia in the last four and to Belgium in the third-place playoff — meant England had lost three consecutive games for the first time in 30 years
A run of four straight defeats for the first time ever was avoided with a scrappy 1-0 friendly win over Switzerland on Tuesday. But it was a performance that caused more reason for concern than optimism.
England manager Gareth Southgate bemoaned his side’s inability to keep the ball under pressure against Spain’s midfield maestros in a repeat of their World Cup heartache when Croatia’s Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic took control of their semi-final.
But while Spain and Croatia boast some of the world’s best midfielders, Southgate had to watch his much-changed side chase the ball for long spells of the first half against the less-heralded Swiss.
Southgate accepted the fault had been tactical as well as technical, and made the changes necessary for a better second-half display that yielded victory thanks to Marcus Rashford’s winner.
However, the England boss was also quick to highlight another familiar problem as justification for a lacklustre first 45 minutes.
– Lack of opportunities –
Midfielders Fabian Delph and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were making their first starts of the season, having failed to get a chance at Manchester City or Chelsea so far.
“They needed the game. It was important we gave them that opportunity,” said Southgate, in the unfamiliar role of an international manager trying to get his players match fit.
Southgate has repeatedly warned of the worrying lack of opportunities handed to English players in the ever more cosmopolitan Premier League.
And he pointed to the stresses and strains of a World Cup summer on a shallow pool of talent as a reason for an understandable early season hangover.
“I knew this week was going to be tough mentally to switch back from World Cup to these games,” he said.
“We’ve asked a lot physically of the players through that tournament. Our players were out on their feet by the end.
“To get a team together for that third-fourth play-off was tough. Then they’ve had this minimal pre-season period.”
Spain’s 6-0 thrashing of Croatia already means England’s chances of reaching the semi-finals of the Nations League look slim.
The long-term goal, though, is for England to compete to win Euro 2020, with the semi-finals and final to be played on home soil at Wembley.
Southgate is under no illusions about the task ahead, particularly when it comes to beating sides such as Spain, world champions France and Belgium.
“For the teams that got to the last four, Roberto (Martinez, Belgium manager) has the Harlem Globetrotters and France have quite a lot of depth as well,” he said in reaction to Spain’s humiliation of the World Cup finalists.
“For ourselves and Croatia we are a smaller pool of players.”
England’s ability to cope with the best teams in Europe faces another stiff test next month in a daunting double-header away at Croatia and Spain in the Nations League.
After a summer during which he was lavished with praise, Southgate is being forced to wrestle with familiar flaws. —AFP